Unions buoyant as 1.27 million French protest pension reform
PARIS (AP) -- An estimated 1.27 million people took to the streets of French cities, towns and villages Tuesday, according to the Interior Ministry, in new massive protests against President Emmanuel Macron's plans to raise the retirement age by two years.
The turnout exceeded participation in a previous round of strikes and protests against the proposed pension system reform, in a significant victory for labor unions. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was forced to acknowledge that her government "hears" the "questions and doubts" raised by the reforms that would push the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The eight unions organizing the protests announced that they would hold new demonstrations on Feb. 7 and Feb. 11.
"In the face of massive rejection, the government must withdraw its reform," said Patricia Drevon of the Workers' Force union, standing beside colleagues from the other unions in a rare, public show of solidarity.
The powerful CGT union claimed that 2.8 million protesters marched Tuesday.
The nationwide strikes and protests were a crucial test both for Macron and his opponents. The government has insisted it's determined to push through Macron's election pledge to reform France's pension system. But strong popular resentment will strengthen efforts by labor unions and left-wing legislators to try to block the bill.
Prime Minister Borne held out a tentative olive branch to protesters and unions later Tuesday, tweeting that: "The retirement reform raises questions and doubts. We hear them."
This suggests that changes could be in the offing but likely without a full withdrawal as demanded by protesters. Her tweet said the debate opening in parliament "will allow us ... to enrich our project with a goal" of ensuring the future of France's pension system. "It's our responsibility."
Just this weekend, Borne, had insisted that raising the retirement age to 64 is "no longer negotiable." And Macron on Monday defended the reform as "essential."
In the capital, police said 87,000 people took to the streets -- up from 80,000 in the first big pension protest on Jan. 19, when authorities said 1 million people demonstrated nationwide. Union estimates had doubled that figure.
The overall peaceful Paris march was marred by scattered clashes between a small group of black-clad radicals and riot police, who fired tear gas beside Les Invalides, site of Napoleon's tomb where the march that stretched across the city ended. Police reported 30 arrests there and elsewhere along the route.
Some 11,000 police were on duty for an estimated 250 protests nationwide.
"Today, the government is in a corner. It has only to withdraw its reform," Erik Meyer of the Sud Rail union -- one of eight which organized the march -- said on BFM TV.
Veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon celebrated "a historic day" of protests and predicted defeat for Macron.
"It's not often that we see such a mass mobilization," he said, speaking in the southern city of Marseille. "It's a form of citizens' insurrection."
The protests were not limited to France's big cities. On Ouessant, a tiny western isle of some 800 people off the tip of Brittany, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the office of Mayor Denis Palluel and marched, he said.
Palluel told The Associated Press that the prospect of having to work longer alarmed mariners on the island with arduous ocean-going jobs.
"Retiring at a reasonable age is important, because life expectancy isn't very long," he said.
The protests by people of all ages were loud and colorful, featuring sirens, bullhorns and smoke bombs, in keeping with a long tradition in France of taking democracy to the streets.
In addition to the protests, strikes disrupted services across France Tuesday.
Rail operator SNCF said most train services were knocked out in the Paris region, in all other regions and on France's flagship high-speed network linking cities and major towns. The Paris Metro was also hard hit by station closures and cancellations.
Power workers in key positions, not allowed to walk off the job, showed their support for protesters by temporarily reducing electricity supplies, without causing blackouts, power producer EDF said.
Jamila Sariac, 60, a civil servant, said the pension system should be left alone.
"Social protection is a milestone of our society, a milestone that the government wants to break," she said, adding that strikes would more effectively pressure the government than demonstrations. "We owe it to our elders who contributed to the wealth of France."
Construction worker Said Belaiba was among travelers whose morning train from Paris to the city of Lyon was cancelled, forcing him to wait. Still, the 62-year-old said he opposed the planned reform.
"My job is physically exhausting," he said. "You can't keep on over 64."
Strikes also hit schools, with the Education Ministry reporting that around one quarter of teachers stayed off the job -- fewer than in the first round of protests.
French media also reported walkouts in oil refineries. Radio station France Inter played music instead of its usual morning talk shows and apologized to its listeners because employees were striking.